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Vol. LXV, No. 30
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
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Book Review

“Did He Get One Today?” — From National Fixation to Personal Passion

Stuart Mitchner

During the summer of 1941, half a year before Pearl Harbor, the nation was cheering a man on a quest. The coast-to-coast excitement aroused by Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak had people simply asking one another “Did he get one today?” without reference to who or what they were talking about. Les Brown and his Band of Renown recorded a hit song about the mythic feat. Sung by Betty Bonney, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” conveyed the morale-raising spirit of “baseball’s famous streak/that’s got us all aglow.” Twenty-five years down the road, one of the key lines from another hit, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” recalled the time when the nation’s “lonely eyes” were “turned to” DiMaggio.

In addition to focusing intensively on the subject at hand, Kostya Kennedy’s 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports (Sports Illustrated Books $26.95) offers a positive alternative to Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (Simon & Schuster 2000).

Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris created some historic excitement of their own 50 summers ago in the season-long home run derby that resulted in Maris surpassing what had then been the Ultimate Number in sports, Babe Ruth’s 60. Thirty-seven years later it was the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa Show as fans began forgiving baseball for the strike-plagued nightmare of 1994. The only trouble with Kennedy’s catchy subtitle is the suggestion that 56 is, in effect, the last remaining or only magic number. The same year DiMaggio rang up his big 56, Ted Williams batted .406. Any time a player comes within so much as 10 or 15 points of .400, even if the season is only a few months old, it gets people excitedly speculating on the possibility that someone else, wonder of wonders, may finally reach the .400 mark on the summit of this baseball Mt. Everest. The power of numbers as an expression of the game’s essence ensures that the magic is undiminished when another larger number comes along. With home runs, for example. Between the steroid scandal and the imperishable charisma of the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth’s fabulous 60 still carries a greater charge than Maris’s 61, McGwire’s 70, and Barry Bonds’s 73.

National Excitement

What made DiMaggio’s run so compelling was the way it gathered force, building into a national media-driven crescendo (backed in Ken Burns’s 1994 PBS documentary Baseball by the driving, pounding excitement of Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing”). As Joltin’ Joe passed George Sisler (41) and Willie Keeler (44), the mission gained an element of suspense that had not been there before. How long could he keep the streak going? The momentum of the quest was magnetic. Paul Simon’s “lonely” sounds just right in the context of the song, except that what DiMaggio was doing was bringing people together, regardless of team allegiance or even interest in the sport. With other records, the excitement peaks with the achievement. Cal Ripkin went on to play 501 additional “consecutive games” after breaking Lou Gehrig’s record of 2130, but no one was biting their nails or cheering him on. Once he’d surpassed Gehrig, the thrill was gone. For DiMaggio, every game after the 44th was a new challenge, a one-man combat sortie within the seasonal war of a pennant race, each game matching his offense against the opposition’s pitching and defense.

The streak that began on May 15 ended at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 17. Had DiMaggio managed to carry it to 57, the integrity of the “last magic number in sports” might have been tainted by product placement. Cramer’s biography has DiMaggio telling Phil Rizzuto after the game, “If I’d got a hit tonight I would have made ten thousand dollars. The Heinz 57 people were following me.” DiMaggio, who flogged Mr. Coffee and Bowery Savings on TV in the 1970s, later claimed the Heinz endorsement deal was “just talk.” A YouTube video shows what purports to be a Heinz commercial featuring stand-ins for DiMaggio and Rizzuto in which Joe says, wistfully, “If it coulda been one more game, Scooter. Just one more game” as the Heinz 57 trademark looms atop the screen. That Cramer chose to quote DiMaggio’s remark is to be expected in a book hungry for negatives. For his part, Kennedy can be forgiven for not mentioning the anecdote in a book predicated on the “magic” of the number.

Best not to dwell on the ethics of the convergence of an inspirational accomplishment with the “57 varieties.” And had DiMaggio extended the streak an additional game, best not to contemplate what might have happened had the company asked him if he could maybe, you know, cut it short at 57 for another ten grand.

Personal Excitement

Considering this week’s Town Talk question, if I had to pick a single personal high-water mark of baseball excitement, it would probably be the climax of the televised broadcast of the 2006 National League Championship Series between the New York Mets and the team I have followed all my life, the St. Louis Cardinals. After Yadier Molina’s ninth inning home run put the Cardinals two runs ahead coming into the bottom of the inning, it was do or die for the Mets, who loaded the bases with two outs and had their best hitter coming to the plate. Carlos Beltran had already hit three home runs in the series, not to mention the damage he’d done to the Cardinals as a Houston Astro in the 2004 playoffs (a phenomenal performance that had much to do with the fat contract he went on to sign with the Mets in 2005).

Here it is then, everything, the epitome of excitement, last of the ninth, bases loaded, Mets fans roaring, the whole season in the balance. Excitement? Tension? Suspense? Agony? Adam Wainwright’s pitch nails the outside corner of the plate and slams into Yadier Molina’s mitt. Wainwright’s curve is a stunner, a diabolic work of art, a pitch Picasso might have painted. In the words of the play-by-play announcers, Wainwright’s “unhittable” curve had frozen Beltran. True enough, oh yes, that beautiful uncanny pitch had paralyzed him, enchanted him, turned him to stone, stolen his soul, leaving the empty shell of a hitter as the hearts of Mets fans sank and the hearts of Cardinals fans soared.

Exciting Numbers

Kostya Kennedy ends 56 appropriately enough with a discussion of the number itself. After quoting Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn to the effect that DiMaggio’s 56 “just doesn’t seem like it can be explained,” Kennedy refers to “the late great physicist” Nobel laureate Ed Purcell “whose work engendered much of the hitting streak analysis and debate.” In Purcell’s evaluation, “DiMaggio’s streak was the only event in baseball history that defied probabilistic explanation.”

Kennedy concludes with some of the biggest numbers yet: “when it comes to baseball and hitting streaks, there is at least one thing we can say for sure: Through the end of the 2010 season 17,290 players were known to have appeared in the major leagues. Only one of them had ever hit in 56 straight games.”

Note: I should mention Michael Seidel’s book, Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ’41 (McGraw-Hill 1988), which I didn’t have an opportunity to consult. Stephen Jay Gould’s amusing piece on Streak in The New York Review of Books is worth tracking down. The last time I checked there was still no news about Carlos Beltran’s fate, but it seems likely that the Mets are going to trade him. Would this be the case if he’d delivered a three-run double or a grand slam in the seventh game of the 2006 NLCS?

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